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Old 03-02-2011, 10:18 PM   #1
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Default The NFL's Final Deadline: November

The NFL's Final Deadline: November
If Owners Lock Out the Players Thursday, There's Pain in Store for Both Sides; Salvaging an 8-Game Season


During the past decade and a half, the NFL calendar has become the metronome of U.S. sports, setting a rhythm for fans, players and team executives.

March brings free agency. The draft arrives in April. May and June are filled with mini-camps and off-season workouts, which give way to training camp in July. There's the long slog through pre-season games in August and then, finally, kickoff week in September.

Barring a last-minute lightning strike, the league's collective bargaining agreement with the NFL players union will expire midnight Thursday, sparking what is expected to be a lengthy lock-out by the owners that will send the league into an unexplored football frontier. "If they walk away Friday there are no automatic flashpoints to get them together anytime really until the summer," said Andrew Brandt, the former vice president of the Green Bay Packers.

The labor strife would transform the NFL calendar into a series of choke points, running from this Friday to November, that would test the resolve of both players and owners. It's hard to tell who might blink first. The owners have more money at stake but the players have never managed to hold together during a work stoppage.

So far, owners have borne the brunt of the pain, losing an estimated $125 million from potential sponsors who have shied away from investing in a league shrouded in uncertainty. Players don't receive their regular paychecks until the first week of the season in September.

The stress will begin to shift to the players as early as Friday, though, as owners refuse to pay roughly $140 million in bonuses to 74 veteran players for being on rosters at the beginning of the so-called "league year." In addition, some 495 free agents will have to wait before they can negotiate new contracts and signing bonuses. Jeff Pash, the NFL's general counsel and lead negotiator, said the league averaged 325 unrestricted free agents in total in 2008 and 2009, 165 of whom earned an average of $2 million in signing bonuses during March.

The player pain will really start to mount in May, when drafted players can't sign contracts. It will continue in mid-June, when veterans who receive bonuses for completing off-season training will miss another payment (Brandt, said his former team, the Packers, often relied on these training bonuses to keep veterans working in a city they might otherwise vacate.)

The final choke point before regular paychecks start to vanish would come in mid-July, when many players would miss a final round of bonuses they'd normally get for reporting to preseason training camp.

Life is expected to be significantly more comfortable for the owners, who will still collect some $4 billion in broadcast rights fees even if no football is played. But they'll have their painful moments as well.

The cloud of a lockout could effectively wreck the raft of publicity surrounding the draft, the biggest weekend for the league during the longest off-season in major pro sports. Season ticket orders, often due in May, are expected to drop significantly. Losses from April to August are projected by the NFL at $500 million. When play begins in September, the league says stadium losses will climb to about $130 million per week.

In the event of a late-summer deal, NFL veterans say teams would need a week to examine and sign players and two weeks to prepare for the first game, meaning the two sides would need to reach a deal by the middle of August for the season to begin on time. Television executives say they're already preparing alternative programs and will factor the labor trouble into any potential advertising purchases later this spring.

So here's the most pertinent question: Exactly when is the point of no return—the moment when the NFL has to cancel the entire 2011 season?

It's the question no one involved with the NFL, especially the television networks, wants to address. The only way to figure out the answer is to look at the calendar and study what the NFL did the last time the league faced this situation in 1982.

Pushing the playoffs back a ways won't be a problem. February is perhaps the sleepiest month of the year on the national sports calendar, especially when there's no Olympics. The slate is wide open until March, when college basketball takes over CBS and Fox gets swallowed by Sunday Nascar coverage. In the end, the NFL could take roughly three extra weeks to complete the playoffs after a truncated season.

So what's the latest the games could start? Charlie Casserly, a former general manager for the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans, says it's hard to imagine the league staging anything less than an eight-game season. In 1982, when labor strife reduced the schedule to nine games, the league put 16 teams in a four-week post-season tournament. The off-week between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl was eliminated.

Assuming the teams would need a three week pre-season to prepare, D-Day for the world's richest sports league appears to fall in mid-November.

Failing that, it looks like Thanksgiving without NFL football. This could force family members to talk to one another over dinner—a concept only slightly less strange than the scheduling moonscape professional football's 32 owners, 1,700 players and millions of fans are about to enter.

Write to Matthew Futterman at matthew.futterman@wsj.com
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